With the death of Little Richard at age 87, the world has lost the last living creator of rock n’ roll. But a voice like Richard Penniman’s can never really be silenced. The controlled mania of the flamboyant pianist and his signature screech – higher than his sky-scraping hair yet firmly footed in the depths of an overactive libido (at least during the early part of his career) – would prove massively influential on everyone from Elvis Presley to Paul McCartney to Jimi Hendrix to entire genres (punk, metal) that were years away from creation when he debuted in the early ’50s.
After altering the lyrics of a song about “good booty” to something more palatable to the masses, Richard Penniman changed the course of popular music with the release of “Tutti Frutti” in 1955. From that globe-changing classic to his wild falsetto “woooohs” on a variety of endlessly covered songs, here’s Little Richard’s 10 best songs.
10. “Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Peepin’ and Hidin’)” (1956)
The rare Little Richard rocker that doesn’t entirely rip your eardrums to shreds, the Georgia wailer holds back a shade on this one, letting the groove run its course as he tells off a lover with the seen-it-all aplomb of a rock n’ roll road warrior who, according to his jaw-dropping authorized biography by Charles White, actually had seen it all.
9. “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey” (1958)
Essentially a rework of the Leiber/Stoller tune “Kansas City,” Richard all but dispatched with lyrics and the need for a typical verse-chorus structure to allow himself two minutes to go wild over a rollicking rock riff, while scraping notes that microphones at the time were ill-equipped to capture.
8. “Rip It Up” (1956)
The rare Richard tune that starts at 11 — his voice grates and tears with anticipation as he thinks about picking up a date on a Saturday — and then actually relents, dipping down to a slightly softer place for the chorus. Of course, Richard being Richard, it doesn’t last for long: quick to follow are the falsetto wail and the exhortation to “GO! GO!” exploding from the pit of his stomach to the upper echelon of sound detectible to the human ear. A reminder that Richard didn’t need to be loud to make a classic; he just chose to be.
7. “Ooh! My Soul” (1958)
Over a barrel roll of sax, keys and drums, Richard chants “kiss-kiss-kiss,” “love-love-love” and “honey-honey-honey” like he’s out of his mind, which makes it all the more arresting every time he comes to a screeching halt and coos the title of the song with a seductive smirk. From this point in rock history, gender was permanently bent.
6. “Keep A-Knockin'” (1957)
A giant leap from jump blues into rock n’ roll anarchy, Richard doesn’t even bother with a song structure, simply launching into the secular stratosphere of snowballing rock energy. He might as well be addressing the listener and every one of his imitators when he wails, “You keep a-knockin’ but you can’t come in,” because as much as we might marvel at the intensity, we can barely conceive of the ecstasy that brought him there.
5. “Long Tall Sally (The Thing)” (1956)
As with so many songs from the pen of Penniman, “Long Tall Sally” is frequently tackled, but no one ever wrestled it to the ground and made it scream “uncle” quite like Little Richard. A pummeling assault of piano-pounding rock so colossally loud that it would take the genre a full decade to catch up to, “Sally” finds Richard spitting out the words with tommy-gun rapidity while his fingers deftly hammer the ivories without mercy.
4. “Good Golly, Miss Molly” (1958)
You can practically taste the spit from Richard’s foaming-at-the-mouth delivery on this oft-covered classic. Quivering with appreciation for a girl who “sure likes to ball,” Richard all but disappears into a squeal of pure id at the 1:15 mark; but ever the consummate pro, he returns on time (and somehow with air still in his lungs) to continue praising the kind of party girl who rocks too hard to hear her mother calling her back to normalcy.
3. “Lucille” (1957)
Maybe the best distillation of what separated Richard from his compatriots and competitors, “Lucille” opens with a chugging dancefloor rhythm that’s inviting but almost anodyne — and then he opens his mouth. Screaming the “seal” part of Lucille like an exasperated mother trying to call her errant child home for dinner, Richard’s vocal delivery on “Lucille” pioneered a gender-free manic punk pleasure that scared plenty but inspired just as many.
2. “Jenny Jenny” (1957)
Little Richard didn’t hold back on the mic on his early years, but on “Jenny Jenny” — from the guttural delivery of the titular lady’s name to the shriek he unleashes at the one-minute mark – the original banshee of rock n’ roll is entirely off the rails. After a minute and a half, a sputtering Richard doesn’t sound so much like he’s struggling to deliver the words as much as he just happens to forget he’s supposed to be singing them in the midst of his obsessive passion. You could make a convincing argument that moment is where punk began to percolate.
1. “Tutti Frutti” (1955)
“A-womp-bomp-aloo-momp, alop-bomp-bomp.” Never before or since did such a nonsensical assortment of gobbledygook have such an irreversible impact on the course of popular music. While Richard had been performing a far more ribald version of the song on the Chitlin’ Circuit prior to his studio version — the less-than-veiled homosexuality of the lyrics included “If it don’t fit, don’t force it/You can grease it, make it easy” — the far more P.C. version released on Specialty Records in 1955 became an R&B hit and a watershed moment for early rock n’ roll, busting down the door for music that was light on lyrical weight but full bore on performative intensity. Endlessly covered but never replicated with the same fervor, “Tutti Fruitt” was the calling card of popular music’s first certified — and celebrated — madman.